On Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama took on House Republicans, criticizing their attempt to roll back the current guidelines for school lunches. “It’s unacceptable to me, not just as first lady but also as a mother,” she declared during a White House meeting with school nutrition officials. “The last thing we can afford to do right now is play politics with our kids’ health. Now is not the time to roll back everything we have worked for.”
The current standards took effect in 2010, when President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Its requirements included more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to be served to students, while setting limits on sugar, sodium and fat. It also set a limit of 850 calories per meal.
While many consider the initiative a laudable goal aimed at reducing childhood obesity, it has collided with daunting reality: students, as well as cafeteria workers, are rejecting the standards as too rigid. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report reveals that student participation in the National School Lunch Program declined by 1.3 million students from the 2010-2011 school year through the 2012-2013 school year, “after having increased steadily for many years.” It further notes that almost all states reported that getting students to accept lunches that complied with the new standards was “challenging,” and that school food authorities (SFAs) faced many problems associated with the program. They included federally-required price increases, “plate waste” (as in food thrown away rather than eaten), overall management of food costs, and planning menus that complied with federal portion sizes and calorie requirements.
Leah Schmidt, president of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), an organization comprised of school nutrition officials and companies that sell food to schools, reinforced that reality. “The administration’s own data proves that student participation in school lunch is abruptly down in 48 states despite rising school enrollment and 30 years of steady program growth,” she explained in a statement. “SNA does not want to gut the nutrition standards — we support many of the requirements. Our request for flexibility under the new standards does not come from industry or politics. It comes from thousands of school cafeteria professionals who have shown how these overly prescriptive regulations are hindering their effort to get students to eat healthy school meals.”
Enter Congress. Last week, a House subcommittee approved a spending bill that would allow schools to waive the standards if a school food program incurs a net loss over a six month period. The bill was crafted by Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) who said it was in response to requests from school officials. They complained about losing money because they are required to spend money on higher cost, healthier foods even as student demand continues to decline. “I am standing with our nation’s schools to provide them the flexibility they are requesting from Congress,” Aderholt explained. “The language in this bill simply provides those schools that are having difficulty complying with the regulations the ability to obtain a temporary, one-year waiver.”
That reality was reinforced National School Boards Association (NSBA) whose spokeswoman, Lucy Gettman, revealed that many schools are raiding their teaching budgets to pay for the aforementioned plate waste. The Department of Agriculture further noted that 500 schools dropped out of the program this year. The NSA and the NSBA both support the legislation and it is expected to be approved by the House Appropriations Committee this week.
The Senate Appropriations Committee also entered the picture, passing a 2015 funding bill for the Department of Agriculture requiring the Department to inform Congress on how it will help schools implement guidelines. In addition the bill prevents scheduled limits on sodium from going into effect, and asks the Department to determine whether schools are capable of implementing the requirement to provide 100 percent whole-grain pasta and bread scheduled to take effect next fall. The USDA legitimized complaints by schools that said they could not find whole-grain pastas that did not fall apart in the giant cauldrons used to prepare school meals.
Despite these realities, the pushback was inevitable. Democratic National Committee Vice Chairwoman Donna Brazile attacked Republicans for allowing such flexibility, claiming the bill “appears to be an attempt to buy time so the frozen food industry and agribusinesses can worm their foods into the schools. The provision is opposed by hundreds of nonpartisan, nonprofit nutrition organizations and supported by just a handful of powerful junk food interests.”
That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CN) who voted against the bill. “Why would Congress, already maligned for labeling pizza a vegetable — and I know something about pizza — now seek to weaken federal child nutrition programs, and through the appropriations process no less, other than to appease the industry?” she asked.
PTA President Otha Thornton was also upset. “At a time when families are working hard to live healthy lives, school meals should be supporting families’ efforts, not working against them,” she wrote in a letter to Congress. Michelle Obama who has made this issue one of her primary policy achievements was equally incensed. “This is unacceptable,” she said at the White House meeting. “It’s unacceptable to me not just as First Lady but also as a mother.
Unfortunately, Michelle Obama’s heavy-handed, top-down approach to the issue is just as unacceptable to those affected most: the students themselves. They have taken to Twitter to express their dissatisfaction with the changes, posting pictures of flaccid-looking healthy lunches, replete with “colorful” and often censorable commentary, followed by the hashtag #ThanksMichelle. Students have also staged boycotts, Facebook-organized lunch strikes, and produced a parody music video called “We Are Hungry” that depicts several students fainting from hunger. It has garnered nearly 1.4 million views on YouTube.
Such reactions are virtually inevitable among teenagers who don’t like being told what to do about anything, much less about what to eat. But Obama undermines her own cause with the one element that invariably attaches itself to the progressive agenda: rank hypocrisy. CNS News’s Barbara Boland decided to investigate what Michelle Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, are served at Sidwell Friends, the high-end private school they attend. She discovered they eat lunches “from menus designed by chefs.” “While the Obama daughters have enjoyed dishes like chicken coconut soup, local butternut squash soup, crusted tilapia, they also get their fill of what Mrs. Obama might consider junk food,” writes Boland. “This week, for example, they’ll enjoy meatball subs, BBQ wings, and ice cream, in addition to chicken curry, deviled egg salad and the intriguing ‘Chef’s Choice.’”
Other entrees included on the Sidwell menu include Philly Cheese Steaks, All Natural Beef Hot Dogs, Pepperoni Flatbread Pizzas and Beef BBQ Sliders. Meriwether-Godsey, the company the provides those meals, employs a registered dietician, an executive chef, and a team of company chefs who design a menu updated every quarter “so we continue to provide excellent nutrition in keeping with the latest tastes and trends,” says Leslie Phillips, Director of Business Development. “Young people are increasingly interested in food and are developing very discerning palates at a younger age.” No doubt, especially when such main courses are accompanied by such items as Organic Baked Fries, Grilled Portobello, Spinach Ricotta, Brazilian Sweet Potato Salad, Basmati Rice, and Roasted Acorn Squash.
On the other hand, there is little doubt that combatting childhood obesity is a noble effort. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) it is a condition that has doubled in children, and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
Yet while addressing what children eat is part of the equation it is not nearly enough: a lack of exercise is an equally critical component. Unfortunately, a report released in 2013 by Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, “Educating the Student Body: Taking Physical Activity and Physical Education to School,” reveals that 44 percent of schools have cut back on physical education classes, and only half of America’s youth meet the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s evidence-based guideline of at least 60 minutes of vigorous or moderate-intensity physical activity daily. It further notes the cutbacks have been engendered by schools devoting more time to reading and math since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001.
In other words, the federal government is working at cross purposes with itself. To her credit, Michelle Obama has also promoted an exercise initiative called Let’s Move, but it is hardly a substitute for the school-based phys. ed. requirements America’s school children need.
Which initiative is more important? Americans old enough to remember a time when school lunches were far less health-oriented than they are now, also remember that childhood obesity was the exception, not the norm. It was also a time when gym classes were an integral part of the school curriculum.
Regardless, the real turnoff here may not be the message, but the messenger. Like her husband, Michelle Obama is a firm believer in the government-knows-best, one-size-fits-all approach to implementing initiatives, even as her own children remain exempt from many of those initiatives. One suspects that she, along with many of her progressive allies, might get a better reception from the public if such arrogance, coupled with the “do as I say, not as I do” hypocrisy that invariably accompanies it, weren’t integral parts of their self-aggrandizing agenda. Absent what would amount to a Road to Damascus change of attitude, this is a “food fight” likely to continue.
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